Vaccination for forest staff leads to controversy

DHO issues notice to two taluk health officers

The District Health Officer of Mysuru has issued notice to two of his subordinates for vaccinating Forest Department personnel on the grounds that they were not frontline workers.

Mysuru DHO T. Amarnath sought an explanation from the Taluk Health Officers of H.D.Kote and Nanjangud as to why the Forest Department staff were vaccinated adding that it has “drawn vehement objections from other officials in the State’’.

This has left the Forest Department staff fuming as it is being perceived as a reflection of the government’s “step-motherly’’ attitude towards them.

Senior officials in the Forest Department said the tone and the tenor of the notice was in bad taste and it amounts to pitting one department against the other though all were equally involved in the fight against the pandemic. The DHO did not take calls for clarification.

Incidentally, the Forest Department had urged the government to consider them as frontline workers so as to receive priority vaccination. But in the list released recently in which the State government had notified workers from various fields and professions in the age group of 18 to 44 years as “frontline workers’’, the employees of the Forest Department were not listed under the category. They were included in annexure 2 constituting “priority group’’ and hence were eligible for vaccination in subsequent days after the coverage of the first group.

“It is not that hundreds of Forest Department staff were vaccinated in Mysuru. Only a handful of forest guards and field staff who constantly interact with the public and risk contracting the virus, received the first jab. Hence the notice was uncalled for’’, said a senior official in the department on condition of anonymity.

There are nearly 13,000 employees in the department of whom around 5,000 are in the 18 to 44 age group. Given the nature of their work that entails field visits and interaction with the public, and engaging in combing operations in areas of human-animal conflict, the staff are at the risk of contracting the virus and at least 50 employees have lost their lives in the second wave so far. Also, depletion of field staff due to COVID-19 could leave vast areas of forests unprotected and wildlife could be susceptible to be poached, according to officials.

When contacted Madhu Sharma, PCCF (Publicity and ICT), refused to comment on the controversy but said the government has been apprised of the imperatives of notifying the Forest Department staff as frontline workers. “A corrigendum correcting the earlier circular and including the Forest Department staff under frontline workers is expected to be issued soon’’, she added.

Recently, the Indian Forest Service Association representing the officers and field staff of the Forest Department also appealed to the Centre to recognise them as frontline workers and prioritise their vaccination.

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